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Photojournalist Pat Kane and artist Pablo Saravanja set out to meet the first responders who made sure they had homes to return to

My wife and I were forced to leave our home in Yellowknife alongside 20,000 others on Aug. 17 as wildfires encroached. With images of other deadly blazes seared into our memory – Lytton, B.C., Fort McMurray, Alta., Lahaina, Hawaii – we knew that the threat of flames incinerating our city was very real.

Still, a part of me didn’t want to go, and I think I speak for thousands of Northwest Territories residents who felt the same way. This is our home, after all.

As a photojournalist, I had an assignment to cover the evacuation. At one point I drove out to the only highway in or out of the city to capture images of people leaving. A huge convoy of vehicles streaked across the landscape, bumper to bumper. This was actually happening. It was time for us to go too.

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The day before he and his wife had to evacuate, Pat Kane photographed residents leaving Yellowknife via Highway 3.

While packing that evening, I got word that journalists from elsewhere in Canada were on their way. I was angry that we were told to leave the city we love while strangers could arrive to report about a place they’d never cared about until now. I was mad at myself for not staying behind to document a historic event in my own backyard. But I knew we had made the right decision.

Yellowknife and the communities of Sambaa K’e, Enterprise, Hay River, Kátł'odeeche First Nation, Fort Smith, Behchokǫ̀ and Wekweètì have all been evacuated this summer, some multiple times, while residents of Enterprise will not be returning home after most of the hamlet burned to the ground.

We were lucky: My wife’s parents live in Sherwood Park, Alta., about 1,500 kilometres away, and happily took us in.

We watched the news and saw friends waiting to be flown by military Hercules aircraft to Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg, where many people would end up in evacuee centres because they had nowhere else to go.

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Smoke rises over Yellowknife's Stanton Territorial Hospital, which Pat Kane photographed before leaving town.

Our hearts went out to our fellow evacuees scattered across Western Canada, but my thoughts went back to Yellowknife and the people who stayed behind to save our city.

My good friend and artist Pablo Saravanja was one of them. He, alongside several other friends, volunteered their days to support the firefighting efforts. They clear-cut brush, packed lunches, cleaned bedsheets, transported fire crews and other essential workers and even watered our flowers. For three weeks, all of these roughly 1,500 guardians worked to get the fires under control so the rest of us could return.

The evacuation order was lifted Sept. 6. We arrived back home two days later. Pablo had arranged a photoshoot with firefighters he had met and invited me to photograph them alongside him.

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Emile Liske from Gameti, NWT, stands in front of the portrait screen arranged outdoors for the photo shoot. He is a crew member with NWT Fire.

For me, documenting these first responders was an opportunity to contribute in a tiny way. For Pablo, I imagine it was more personal – a way to connect with the firefighters who had come from South Africa, the United States, Newfoundland, Ontario, Saskatchewan, B.C., the Yukon, and of course, the ones who live in the Northwest Territories.

One of those locals is Peppie Beaulieu, who has been fighting wildfires for 43 years. A cheerful Métis man from Fort Resolution, Mr. Beaulieu says that at 15 years old, he and his friend, Gerry Yelle, lied about their age so that they could work the fire lines.

“We got caught and they didn’t allow us back but they needed kitchen help, so we got a job peeling potatoes until we were of age to fight fires again. We’ve been working fires together for a long time, and this is the worst we’ve ever seen here.”

Amid the relentless coverage this summer of burning forests, smoke-filled skies and long lineups of vehicles, it’s easy to forget the people working to put out the flames while the rest of us unpack our belongings, hug our friends and water our own flowers. Here are just a few of those faces.

Peppie Beaulieu from Fort Resolution, NWT, is a fire base chief with NWT Fire.
Gerry Yelle from Yellowknife is a crew chief with NWT Fire.
Devyn Peters and Beth Paul – from Saskatoon and Big River, respectively – are a crew member and a crew leader with Saskatchewan PSA.
Camilla MacEachern of Yellowknife is a logistics co-ordinator with NWT Fire.
Michael Nowak from Toronto is a crew member with Timmins FMH.
Branden Gravelle from North Bay, Ont., is a crew member with Wawa FMH.
Alex Williah from Behchoko, NWT, is a crew member with NWT Fire.
Dawson Banks from Leader, Sask., is a crew member with Saskatchewan PSA.
Elisabeth Pillichshammer from Yellowknife works with a kitchen crew.
Darren Marlowe from Lutselk'e, NWT, is a crew member with NWT Fire.
Burton Morin from Big River First Nation is a crew member with Saskatchewan PSA.
Thomas Fontaine from Hudson Bay, Sask., is a crew leader with Saskatchewan PSA.

Fighting fires: More from The Globe and Mail

The wildfires of 2023 emitted more greenhouse gases than all Canadian industries combined. Research scientist Werner Kurz spoke with The Decibel about what that means and how we can limit the damage of future fire seasons. Subscribe for more episodes.

Australia’s volunteer ‘firies’ offer lessons on taming wildfires in Canada

As boreal forests burn again and again, they won’t grow back the same way

John Vaillant: Alberta burned because we made this planet into a volcano

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